Sunday, 28 July 2013

A Boat a Day (no.363)


She was a beauty; a cool breeze filled her leather sails, pushing her through the waves. His men called her Niobe, though the name painted on her hull was Auralia. Niobe was his wife’s name, but it was the ship who commanded him, not the woman. He and Auralia had sailed together for over twenty years, through easy summers and mild swells, and some not so mild.
There was more salt than pepper in his wiry beard and not a few scars criss-crossing his weathered features. But Auralia, she was as pristine and beautiful as the day he bought her. This would be their last journey together, his legs were not as strong as they were, his stride was jilted and when the waves rocked Auralia he stumbled, where once he would have swayed with her. He could die on board his beloved, with a smile on his face, but Niobe had pleaded with him, clutching his hands with her arthritic ones. She needed him home, and so this was his final voyage.
The light was fading, and with it the calm of day, he watched as thick grey clouds gathered above them, whipping the ocean into action. Voices rose behind him, Sol, his son, loudest among them.  Tearing himself out of his reverie, he climbed onto weary feet and sniffed the air. How quick it could turn out here on the ocean. As the swells grew, he span into action, spitting orders and hauling the lines to stow the sails safely. There were men and ropes everywhere, but no panic. They’d been through hundreds of storms, and this wasn’t anything to fear. Nonetheless swift action got the sails in and the hatches down before the first raindrop hit the deck. He spared a moment’s thought for the unlucky few on watch,
“Sol,” He called, “Take the fella’s some rum, it will be cold as death out there once the sun goes.” He stayed with his men drinking and dicing, ate salt pork and biscuits with them and listened, as he always did to their banter, worries and gripes. A good Captain always breaks bread with his crew; this is how friendships are built and with friendship comes true loyalty. His father had taught him that. As night wore on the storm raged around them, lifting Auralia on tidal surges and carrying them all along. Rain pattered on his windows, lulling him to sleep. He didn’t fight it, sleep, and dreams had long abandoned him, left him staring into the dark when all but the watch and the ocean slept.

Morning light poured in through the glass panes. The sea was placid and serene, glittering azure in the dawn. Birds wheeled overhead and silver fish leapt through the waves. Gently he roused the watchmen and sent them to their bunk; he took the wheel and sent Gedric, the helmsman down for some breakfast and studied the endless blue. How far had the storm carried them? He checked his compass, an old family heirloom, the hand span flickering between South and West, but never stopping. “Damn thing.” He muttered giving it a little shake, but wherever North was it wasn't going to tell him. A shiver ran down his spine, the air smelt different and the ocean never had it seemed so blue to him.
“What bird is that?” Sol asked standing at his shoulder. Ajax looked up at a large shadow on the horizon
“An Albatross, perhaps.” He said, uncertainty welling up inside. Gedric bounced up on deck, bringing the Captain a hot brew. It seared his throat as he took a gulp, “What would you say that is Ged?” He pointed to the blot in the sky, still a long way off.
The man squinted into the distance and shrugged, “Just looks like a big bird to me, I’ll get the lad to have a look from up high.”

The lad was a scrawny girl of about 13; she scrambled up the shrouds lugging the ships brass telescope, almost as long as her. Ajax tried not to show his trepidation as he waited for her to set her sights. A hand on his arm made him jump; he looked down as Sol’s fingers dug deep.
From somewhere out to sea he heard a melody, dancing on the breeze toward him. He strained to hear, to follow the sweet cadence of voice and harp. Someone called his name, ‘Captain’ the word echoing in song, becoming part of that beautiful sound. Now he could hear individual voices, and the occasional word, they sang for him, and for Auralia, of her majesty and his mastery. Ged’s hands slid from the helm as the Captain took charge, he span it three times, pointing their bow towards the alluring music. He had to find the source; he had to hear it properly, even as he turned to face it the sound drifted, in and out of hearing. It was so faint he had to hold his breath to catch it, but it was still there. Quieter than before, but still they sang. 
His head snapped up, blinking against the light he tried to make out the crows-nest, a flash of copper-gold made his heart leap with relief. “What do you see?” He called up,
“Land ahead Captain, and…” The hull scraped on rocks hidden in the shallows, Auralia’s wooden planks screeched as the wind pushed them towards a coast reefed with shards of broken rock, wickedly sharp and littered with giant nests. There were orders he was supposed to call, movements and routines that they knew but none came to mind. His son’s hand still gripped his arm; Ged slouched, swaying back and forth with a glazed look in his eye. From above he heard a scream; it crawled under his skin and lifted the hairs on the nape of his neck. The wind swallowed it and when it returned it was changed, it was beautiful once more. He craned his neck, letting the sound wash over him, the helm jerked in his hands, he let it go, it didn't matter. Nothing mattered.

Listen, come as close as you dare and listen, fill your heart and soul with our song,
be content and go on your way, wise men won’t see us, never look upon or seek us.
 Death only we have to share, putrid, agonising despair, we weep and they come to die again and again. Turn your sails Captain, its time to feed, heed our warning and flee.
It meant nothing to him; words carried no meaning only the bittersweet melody, tears stung in his eyes as the voices built to a sorrowful crescendo.
‘heed our warning and flee.’ 
The ship shuddered as it collided with a jagged peak; he sprawled to the deck scraping skin from his hands and knees. The pain cleared his thoughts momentarily, sweeping away the cobwebs of enchantment. He looked around Auralia; others knelt on the floor like him, as if in supplication, Ged still swayed, enraptured and blissful. More of his crew had come up on deck; all of them stared dreamily at the shore. Eagerly awaiting a glimpse of the singers.

The girl ran between them, tugging at sleeves and hands, pushing and pulling the crew, but none responded to her. They were stupefied, even the Captain stared through her as his ship ran aground. She cried and begged, slapping her hands over her ears when the song became too much to ignore, all the while desperately trying to snatch the crew back from wherever they thought they were. She tried to spin the helm herself, to turn Aurelia back towards the open sea, but it was heavy and she was only small.
Instead she frantically hauled the sails in and dragged the leaden anchor overboard, with no wind to push and the anchor weighing her down, Aurelia floated, between two pinnacles of rock. The occasional swell threatened to dash them onto the rocks, but the gods must have been looking out for them. Finally the song seemed to vanish; the young girl took a shaky breath and tried once more to rouse her Captain. He smiled sleepily at her as he squinted up from his hands and knees, he looked peaceful and happy. A shadow fell over her, and his smile was gone, replaced with wide eyes and bone white cheeks.
She felt a strong breeze buffet her back, lifting her hair and her clothes. She dared not look, her breathe was shaky and when she inhaled she caught a stench of death. Sharp talons scraped her back, catching on her clothes and lifted her into the air; she tried to scream but no sound escaped her. She reached for her Captain, stared at him with tearful eyes, silently begging him to help her. As she was lifted higher into the sky, she saw other shapes land on the rigging, on the boons and deck of Auralia. Great birdlike creatures with the head and body of a woman, black feathers laced their back and arms, covering them in a scruffy down. Huge feathered wings sprouted from shoulder blades, black and raggedy. Spots danced in her eyelids as she watched them descend on the crew, the singing had ceased, replaced with blood-curdling screeches and cries of fear. She squirmed against her captor, thrashing wildly. Her flailing arms touched coarse feathers, she grasped a handful and pulled as her vision dipped and blurred. Screaming in defiance she grabbed another fistful of feathers and felt a huge wave of satisfaction as black feathers drifted down on the wind accompanied by her captor’s wail of agony. She grabbed again and then she was falling. Released from her prison and falling towards sea, rock and Auralia.

The Captain saw the girl fall, her copper-gold hair whirling in the breeze as she plummeted to earth. It was the shock he needed, he clapped his hands together loudly, making even himself jump with the sudden sound. In his loudest, most commanding voice he called orders.
“Company!” He roared, “Man your weapons, we are under attack!” He drew his sword and hacked at the nearest beast, feathers and globs of blood flew as he ran his blade through. He whirled and struck again, the hideous she-beast shrieked as she turned from her bloody work and lunged for him. He gave no ground, but hacked and slashed until she fell bodily to the deck. He saw Ged cradling a bloody arm, he was injured but alive. A claw grabbed the top of his hair, and blunt teeth sank into the meaty flesh of his cheek. In rage he drove his sword up, into the belly of his attacker, her blood rained down on his face, hot and putrid. Her weight dragged him down as she collapsed; he wrenched his sword free and spat. Looking around he saw only one remaining, she circled above their ship and screeched in rage and hunger, there was fear in her big black eyes, but anger too. She fixed her eyes on the Captain, flattened her wings to her body and dove at him. Bringing his sword up, he prepared himself for death,
“Gods have mercy,” He muttered as her stink engulfed him, she reached out with talons as long and sharp as any dagger, aiming for his eyes. He ducked and swung, but the expected impact never came. He heard a dull thud and through narrow eyes saw her prone body on the deck, a cross-bow bolt embedded in her neck. Blood seeped between the cracks in the planks, thick almost black and stinking. Pushing the hair from his face he scoured the deck of Auralia, ready for danger. Sol fished the young girl from the ocean, her hair was matted with blood but her skinny chest was moving faintly. With relief he sank to the deck and retched, blood dripped from the wounds on his face and slowly the pain came flooding back to him. He clutched his gut as another wave of agony bought bile to his throat.
“Father!” Sol yelled running to his side, “Ged, bring water and bandages.” He ordered, using his Captains voice, “And rum!” He called after the helmsman.
“Sol,” He clutched his son’s collar and fumbled in his pocket, withdrawing the ancient compass he put it into Sol’s hand, “get us home…” He felt pride as he heard his boy shout orders, he would make a good Captain, Auralia was already responding to his touch. He took a sip of rum, closed his eyes and fell asleep to the sound of the sails unfurling.
Of the sirens they said nothing, the crew scrubbed the deck, removing the stains and with it the stench.  Every now and then someone would whistle the Sirens Song, and chills would run the length of the ship, even Auralia seemed to shiver.

1 comment:

  1. A beautiful story really enjoyed reading it.